Comment: Singapore spring at IATA agm

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A week, so the saying goes, is a long time in politics. And for outgoing IATA chief Giovanni Bisignani, it took just two days in Singapore, where airline leaders had gathered for his farewell annual general meeting as director general, for a sea change to roll in.

The intervention by Middle East carriers over what effectively amounted to a lack of transparency within the organisation's senior ranks came during one of the usually well-orchestrated morning sessions. What it exposed were hitherto almost invisible fault lines in an association keen to promote a united front.

Indeed, the fireworks began in a session straight after Bisignani's opening speech, in which he called for a united stance on tensions around the rapid growth of the Gulf carriers. "As responsible leaders of this global industry, we must find a fair and reasonable way forward ourselves," urged Bisignani.

And it was the boss of a Gulf airline, Qatar Airways' Akbar Al Baker (no stranger to being outspoken), who initiated the transparency debate (see P8 for the details). He was backed by voices from as far afield as Lebanon and Papua New Guinea. Finance and auditing issues were the cause of one irritation, and the style in which Etihad's James Hogan had been appointed to the board of governors was the other.

As the excitement unfolded over the course of an hour, Al Baker's sharply made points were complemented by the ever-eloquent Tim Clark. The Emirates boss summed up the mood by saying that IATA had the appearance of being "run for the few, by the few and this has to end".

The only note of caution came from Air New Zealand head Rob Fyfe, who is an IATA board member.

The result was a secret ballot over the appointment of IATA's auditors. This method of voting was itself the result of a mini-revolt amid concerns that the original proposal for a show of hands was unworkable.

We did not have to wait long for the result, which now seemed to have taken on the appearance of being a vote of confidence in IATA. And it was only narrowly defeated, showing clearly the unease that many airline leaders have in IATA's governance.

As Toronto Star scribe Bert Archer tweeted: "#IATAAGM Ballot results: 43 in favour of proposal, 48 against, 5 abstentions, 22 blanks, 1 ineligible. Very divided #IATA, it seems."

With victory so close, some revolutionaries felt cheated by what they perceived as a misleading ballot form.

Clark and Al Baker, along with Hogan, then found themselves in the firing line during the afternoon's CEO debate as the legacy carriers defied Bisignani's earlier plea for unity and revived the age-old arguments about the evils of allowing unchecked expansion for the "protected" Gulf carriers.

In the wake of the Arab revolt, the IATA team pondered next moves overnight: would any objections be raised about the appointment of director general designate Tony Tyler?

This former head of Cathay Pacific was IATA's nomination and a man seen by all as a brilliant choice. Tyler's appointment was warmly welcomed, with many delegates standing and applauding. This was a response that, rather churlishly, they did not repeat when Tyler's long-serving and hard-working predecessor left the podium for the final time.

"It has been a difficult AGM, but in my mind one of the most positive AGMs in recent times," said Tyler. But he must surely have had a rude awakening to the challenges he faces.

In these pages a month ago, we published our take on Bisignani's incredible decade at the helm. Our conclusion was that - while he was not to everyone's taste - he had made IATA relevant again. And for many, while it was uncomfortable viewing, this "Singapore Spring" underlines just how relevant the association has become.